Cats and Lions
Imagine a 400 lb lion is charging at you, with murder in its eyes. Feeling stressed? If you don’t, you are cat food. Stress is the human feeling of the release of the hormone cortisol at a perceived danger. This instinctive reaction to a danger saved your ancestors, and even might save you too from a particularly unathletic lion.
Now imagine a 10 lb domestic cat is charging at you. Still stressed? Probably less stressed than by the lion. When we see the source of danger clearly, we are proportional in our response. While modern life is much safer than that lived by our ancestors, we are still wired to see dangers everywhere.
Stress Is Inevitable
When we panic at an essay deadline or an exam, we imagine our very existence is threatened. In reality, most of the things which stress us are of the same existential danger as a pussycat - it might scratch and hiss, but there is no need to flee for your life. Most of our problems are cats, but we imagine they are lions.
Because our world contains far fewer lions to eat us , we sometimes think of stress as an evolutionary throwback. Too much stress is linked with every imaginable health problem from diabetes to heart disease. We often think of stress as a wholly negative feeling, and we would like to get rid of altogether, however, this is throwing the cat out with the bath water.
You may not like cats, but like cats, stress is inevitable. Not simply inevitable, it is a factor in every event of our lives big and small. This becomes obvious when you see how people with anxiety can struggle to manage with even tasks you may think are easy.
You can either deal with stress in a positive “transformational” or negative “regressive” way. People who thrive in this world are thriving because of their transformational mindset, because the world is just one stressful even after another. This transformational mindset is the essence of success.
Think about the last time you were truly impressed by someone. Most likely it was their ability to deal with a difficult situation. If you really think about it, it was not that they coped with the stress, rather the stress itself motivated them to do incredible things. Rather than succeeding in spite of the stress, it is stress itself that enables people to succeed. You can learn to use stress in a transformational way with three strategies.
Mindfulness strengthens your resilience to stressful events.
The most basic mindful practice is repeatedly training yourself to refocus amidst distraction. This is transferable to the stressful events of our lives because we often have competing priorities, and it is the information overload and decision paralysis which distresses us, rather than the enormity of individual problems. Mindfulness helps us to slow down and see the competing priorities objectively and act decisively.
Training mindfulness helps us resist the extremes of our emotions. It coaches us to be both more resilient to stressful events, but also not to react too emotionally to other events. Negative stress is often accompanied by a lack of control. When you are in control of your emotional responses to the events in your life you will be better at tackling them.
Fulfilled Flow State
We can channel stress to have more fulfilled lives.
Humans experience greatest fulfillment when they are in something called flow state. The flow state is the euphoric state of high performance and deep focus enjoyed by top athletes and experts in their field. Top performers consistently seek out mentors and coaches who can keep them under stress, because they recognize it improves performance. However it is possible for anyone to feel like an expert in their own domain by entering this zone of peak performance.
By understanding when stress helps you enter this state, you can control your tasks and your environment in order to stay in flow for longer and improve productivity. You can use mild stress to help you do impressive things and actually improve your overall happiness.
Setting deadlines for yourself, you can use stress to be more productive.
The pomodoro technique is an effective way of setting deadlines and targets because it gives you spaced out work and rewards at regular intervals such that you remain in a state of moderate stress for the duration of your task. However, you aren’t putting off your task until the very end when it seems very scary. Would you rather fight ten cats or one lion?
The mild stress of a small deadline is enough to give you the motivation to start working, and once you start to enjoy it, you feel as if you are flying. When confronted with a big deadline, many people freeze. If you give yourself many little deadlines, each one propels you forward to the next one, and you focus better for longer.
Stress is unavoidable and everywhere, but we can all learn to interpret stressful events in a more transformative way. We can learn to use stress to motivate ourselves to improve work rather than letting it overwhelm us.
N.B. Some tasks are simply lions. You cannot tackle them alone, and so it is good to ask for help. It is important to know you are not powerless in the face of stress, but there is no shame in asking for help, or admitting that some problems are too big and scary for you to handle alone.